PUEBLO — On the high plains at this city’s eastern edge, fields of concrete bunkers arrayed like a vast cemetery hold most of the remaining stockpile of the nation’s chemical weapons. The earth-covered “igloos” with their reinforced concrete headwalls contain 2,611 tons of mustard agent in mortar rounds and artillery shells.
Slated for destruction since at least 1985, the munitions are old, leaky and expensive to protect.
The process of dismantling them is 29 years behind schedule and $33.8 billion over budget, according to Defense Department documents and historians.
Half a world away, the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is seeking to take apart Syria’s estimated 1,000-ton stash of poison agent in just eight months. The group was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work, which proceeds amid a raging civil war.
The depot here in Pueblo shows how difficult the job can be, even absent the chaos of war. Stymied by technical barriers, concerned neighbors and increasingly complex environmental regulations, the U.S. effort to get rid of its own weapons of mass destruction has consistently fallen short of projections.
Ronald Reagan was president when Congress first directed the Army to eliminate its stockpile of 31,500 tons of mustard agent, sarin and VX developed by the U.S. military for use in war. At that time, the Army thought the job would be done by 1994 and cost $1.7 billion, according to the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research institute.
By the time of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention — an international treaty under which the U.S. and other nations agreed to destroy their stockpiles — estimates had shifted. But the U.S. still expected to destroy its arsenal by a 2007 deadline. The convention held out the possibility of a five-year extension. That deadline slipped by last year.
In the latest Defense Department projection, the remaining 10 percent of the stockpile won’t be destroyed until 2023, at a total cost of $35.5 billion.
The initial estimates were “optimistic,” says Greg Mahall, a spokesman for the Army department responsible for destroying most of the stockpile to date. “As we got more and more into the reality of it, we found that some of the assumptions were off base.”
Among these assumptions were that the toxic agents would remain inert as they were dismantled.
“Some of the mustard projectiles champagned when we opened them — spit out and went like a champagne bottle,” says Mahall. Walls and equipment in the destruction plants were contaminated with the toxic blister agent, creating more cleanup work.
At the same time, environmental groups and neighbors of storage sites like Pueblo Chemical Depot presented hurdles to the Army’s plan to incinerate the material.
Ross Vincent, a retired chemical engineer, moved to Pueblo with his wife in 1988 thinking that they had arrived in an “environmental nirvana.”
When the couple found out at a chamber of commerce meeting that the Army was planning to burn chemical weapons nearby, says Vincent, “My wife and I looked at each other and went, ‘Uhhh.’”
Now 71 and the chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Vincent says he has spent the last quarter century pushing the Pentagon to seek faster, safer and more efficient ways to destroy the toxic weapons.
“When I got into this, I didn’t know it was going to be a lifestyle choice,” he says.
In 1996, in response to public pressure, Congress directed the Army to seek alternatives to incineration. The result of that effort is a plan to use processes of neutralization — diluting the chemicals with water before treating them — to eliminate the stockpile in Pueblo by 2019. A similar plan is in place for the 523 tons of chemical material, including weaponized sarin, held at Kentucky’s Blue Grass Army Depot, by 2023.
In Pueblo, a destruction plant has been built, and is undergoing a rigorous process of systemization — that is, testing the equipment and training the staff — before its proposed launch in 2015.
Even with the technological advances of recent decades, however, the process of neutralizing toxic agents can be especially complicated when they have been built into projectiles and mortars.
“Every once in a while the munitions leak,” explains Charles Sprague, spokesman for the Pueblo Chemical Depot. “We usually find the leaking munitions after a good low pressure storm comes through.”
Sensors detect the leaks inside the igloos, and chemical operations crews are sent in with protective equipment to find the culprit, Sprague says. The problem munitions are then packed into other material and put into a separate igloo.
These overpacked and leaky munitions can’t be neutralized in the prescribed way, so the current plan is to explode them in mobile detonation chambers.
For decades before American environmental regulations came into play in the early 70s, some weapons were simply buried. A 1996 Army report identified 96 possible chemical weapons burial spots in 38 states. The likely burial sites included Rocky Mountain Arsenal, an area east of Commerce City that once housed facilities for the manufacture of nerve and blister agent. The 27-square mile area is now undergoing clean-up as a Superfund site, and has been named a wildlife refuge.
Or the munitions were simply tossed into the ocean. The acronym for this method, says Army spokesman Mahall, was CHASE — Cut Holes and Sink ’Em.
A sarin attack that killed hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 brought a fresh reminder of the horrors these weapons can bring. Faced with the haunting images of the victims of this attack, few would suggest it’s not worth destroying Syria’s stockpile of poison agent.
The differences between the two countries’ chemical weapons stockpiles are stark, says Defense Department spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea. The U.S. stockpile was much older, and largely weaponized — put into munitions.
“It’s not a very good comparison,” Elzea says. “It was done very slowly and deliberately in the U.S.”
Back in Pueblo, Vincent wonders how an arsenal like Syria’s could be destroyed safely in less than a year. He says he’s satisfied that the current proposal for destroying the remaining stockpile in Colorado has come a long way toward eliminating risks and pollutants, though he adds, “None of us is very pleased with the idea of blowing up chemical weapons in the neighborhood.”
Many of Vincent’s neighbors, meanwhile, have grown tired of the debates over the chemical weapons stockpile next door, says Irene Kornelly, who chairs the Colorado Citizens Advisory Commission, a watchdog group for the Pueblo Chemical Depot.
“There are also a lot of people who don’t care one way or another,” says Kornelly. “At this point, it’s like, just get it done.”